Tips and Tricks: Learn GNU/Linux in One Stanza

by Frederick Noronha

LOST, short for Linux One Stanza Tip, is a project that tries to make it easier for newbies and techies alike to find their way the maze of secrets that sometimes seem to surround GNU/Linux.

The project started in July 2001 on the Linux-India-Help mailing list, which was set up on the Linux-India network by volunteers within India and abroad. The goal of the network is to promote free software and, specifically, GNU/Linux in that part of South Asia.

One of the threads on the help mailing list centered on the repetition and hand-holding that occurred with new users. Inspired to come up with another way of dealing with frequently asked questions and ensuring a faster learning curve, a team of Indian geeks pooled their resources. To start, the team consisted of Suresh "SRS" Ramasubramanian, Rajesh Fowkar, Sriram Karra and USM Bish.

Suresh Ramasubramanian, one member of the geek team, explains:

It started when USM Bish (one of the key persons) had this great idea. FAQs are asked and repeated so many times. Many people didn't bother to use Google or go to web-page FAQs. They expected answers by e-mail.

Their solution was to include short tips and tricks into the signature lines of their e-mail correspondence. At first, the team wrote HOWTOs and FAQs as well as copied their e-mails to each other, all of which was made available in August 2001 on a HOWTO mailing list offshoot of the Linux-India-Help mailing list. The next step was to make these files available via a web server, so others could be pointed to a common resource.

As time went, however, the team found that readership of e-mail signature tips was about 80%, much higher than any of the other information available on the server. So, more attention was paid to developing these short, info-containing signatures to disseminate Linux-related knowledge. "In education parlance, this is called passive dissemination of information", says Bish.

For some background, since 1997 prominent mainstream Indian computer magazines, like PC-Quest, have pushed GNU/Linux forward by circulating tens of thousands of copies of GNU/Linux CDs. In addition, more magazines, including DeveloperIQ and Digit, have begun to circulate GNU/Linux CD-ROMs.

Now, with the development of LOST, the circle seems to be nearing completion: early adopters of GNU/Linux are passing on skills to new users. Bish says he probably was among the first users of GNU/Linux in India (he started in 1995) and has collected quite a few hints and tips himself over the years.

Bish recalls:

It was a matter of putting a few samples out there for perusal, then some brain-storming on the HOWTOs and, finally, getting the right catch-word, LOST. It also took a bit more effort to get the format together. Then we were on the road. By the time LOST was put up for the first time in September 2001, about a dozen folk were [working on the] HOWTOs.

The first LOST tips were put up on Bish's home page, along with the other documents that he wrote, like the HDI (How Do I) series. The first few also were posted on the Linux-India Help mailing list. They quickly caught the attention of people on the list, and contributions started coming in. "We did not publicize on other lists because there was much more work to be done before we actually could call it a project to be proud of", says Bish.

Although the tips were ready, the implementation of a randomized signature-tip generator was a different ball game altogether. It was possible to use random signature-generating software like Fortune or randsig for LOST signatures, but the team felt the need to develop something so that signature placement would be by choice--either a LOST tip or some other signature.

Bish started writing the script rotator and then developed the gen-sig program. These are Bash-only scripts but did the job well. In fact, fans of the rotator script argue that it is one of the most versatile signature-rotation programs on the Net. It is designed for signatures from multiple signature sets, PGP/GPG and reserved-signature placement. It also allows for signatures from databases like LOST that could be fixed or left random.

Other scripts were needed as well. In particular, a script was needed for the manipulation of LOST snippets to other formats. To handle this, other geek team member, Binand, wrote a script called lgrep, which searches for LOSTs by keywords. In addition, Sriram has been writing an elisp script for interfacing with Emacs, and team member Sayamindu wrote a PHP script to place random LOSTs on web pages, which is working on his home page.

It was at this stage, between October and November 2001, that LOST started taking the shape of a full-fledged project. By December 2001, it had been accepted by SourceForge. On New Year's Day 2002, Bish put up the first tarball on, and by January 15, 2002, an announcement was made on Linux-India-Help. By then, the number of signature-line HOWTO snippets had swelled to 250 from the original 50 first put up in September 2001.

Currently, LOST tips number more than 300, and the nine scripts that fully execute the project, including the random tip generator, are posted too. Contributions are accepted from anyone, Surseh says.

So what do these tips look like? As an examples, here is one tip that came from Rahul Torvi:

####[ Linux One Stanza Tip (LOST) ]###########################
Sub : Command line shortcuts (clear)                 LOST #310
Tired of typing in "clear" every time you want the screen to
be cleared ? Press [Ctrl-L] ... This works for  most shells,
(except for ash, bsh and ksh)

Most of the participation in LOST currently comes from India, and those pushing the list forward are regulars from Linux-India-Help: "People like Bish, Rajesh Fowkar, Binand Raj, Dileep Kumar (MDK), etc.; I haven't contributed more than two or three LOSTs--I just host the mailing list for LOST", says Suresh. He gives full credit to "Bish's fertile brain" for originating the idea. Like many other free software GNU/Linux projects, it grew by word-of-mouth.

Goa-based Rajesh Fowkar disagrees, "Suresh's contributions are next best only to Bish's." As with many volunteer-driven projects evolving in the GNU/Linux spirit, the fight is not so much to gain credit at the individual level, but to spread the benefits around generously and appreciate one another's contributions.

Suresh suggests that a project like this has far greater potential than currently realized. His strategy: expand LOST as far as possible in India, then submit it to Freshmeat so that more people can look at it and participate.

Though only a few months old, members already recollect memorable posts. Many recall the time when some fine soul found a LOST signature about an on-board modem on a mailing list and posted to the list in Spanish. Luckily his error messages were in English, and some of the volunteers actually were able to help him from distant India.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist in Goa, India.

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